Sunday, January 19, 2014

Poems and primes

Friday morning, 1-17-2014, looking north from the Baltimore Convention Center

       This past week I enjoyed Thursday and Friday at the Joint Mathematics Meetings at the Convention Center in Baltimore, a time for connecting with some old friends and making some new ones.  I gave a presentation in one of the sessions on the Intersection of Mathematics and the Arts, sharing poems -- such as Sherman Stein's "Mathematician" -- that can help non-maths to understand more clearly the nature of mathematics.  The handout for my talk contained a list of more than thirty poems that can help to communicate the nature of mathematics and it is available for download here
       Friday afternoon's poetry reading was a fine event -- with many wonderful poems (more about that in later posts) and an enthusiastic audience.  Some of these guests were recruited by Villanova mathematician Douglas Norton, chair of the math-arts sessions, who composed a limerick to announce the event.  I have not before been the subject of a limerick; with Doug's permission, I share it with you.       Thanks, Doug.

          There once was a woman named JoAnne,
          A math-poet second to no man.
                  Join her on her path
                  Through poems and math
          Come hear her on Friday if you can.

In the open-reading portion of Friday's program, Ben Orlin read his poem, "A Fight with Euclid" -- a lively ballad about Euclid's argument that the set of primes is infinite.  The poem is available here at his website.  I offer the opening stanzas below in an attempt to draw you to the rest of it -- or go directly to Orlin's website ( to enjoy the illustrated whole.       Thanks, Ben!

from  A Fight with Euclid     by Ben Orlin

       I had a fight with Euclid on the nature of the primes.
       It got a little heated -- you know how the tension climbs.

       It started out most civil, with a honeyed cup of tea;
       we traded tales of scholars, like Descartes and Ptolemy.
       But as the tea began to cool, our chatter did as well.
       We’d had our fill of gossip. We sat silent for a spell.
       That’s when Euclid turned to me, and said, “Hear this, my friend:
       did you know the primes go on forever, with no end?”

       I took a napkin to my face,
       to wipe the tea and shock.
       At length I said, “The primes don’t end?
       My friend, that’s crazy talk.”

 . . .
 Finish reading Orlin's poem here at his website.  While there, explore other fascinating things.   

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